The Saviors of Maplehurst?

A faith-based development company is doing wonders for the old neighborhood, but also raising questions about what constitutes "community"

The future of Maplehurst seems more secure than it did six months ago. But one surprising aspect of the admired preservationist development seems certain to change the character of the bohemian enclave.

Maplehurst has always been charmingly uncategorizable, the pocket neighborhood between the University of Tennessee and downtown, a dense cluster of ca. 1915-25 houses and apartment buildings ringed with larger and plainer modern apartment buildings on the UT and Neyland Drive side. Though ringed by busy streets—Henley, Neyland, Cumberland—Maplehurst is nearly invisible until you're right in this rare cul-de-sac. Known as Maplehurst Park, the development was marketed as a walking commute to downtown professionals, but in the last 30 or 40 years, it's enjoyed an artsy nonconformist reputation.

For at least 50 years, though, Maplehurst has suffered neglect and deterioration, interrupted by sweeping development projects, like Gameday, an initiative by an out-of-state company that aimed to re-orient much of Maplehurst to serve an upscale football-fan crowd. It seemed to fizzle, though there are still condos in one building associated with the project. Since then, the neighborhood has deteriorated further, as vagrants broke into condemned buildings.

Early this year, Dominion Development Group bought 15 buildings, constituting several modern apartment buildings on the Neyland Drive side of the neighborhood and maybe two-thirds of the historic part of Maplehurst, comprising about 100 units. They went to work on the neighborhood with surprisingly sudden vigor, doing major repairs and cutting down trees deemed to be a hazard to the buildings. Several residents were evicted with short notice prior to the rehab work; one who was contemplating legal action over a reportedly broken lease declined to speak for the record.

Dominion's not a newcomer to this hilltop; the company had already rehabbed the 93-unit Neyland Hills apartment building on the UT side of Maplehurst's hill, and relandscaped it. Today, its courtyard is lush with flower gardens. When Dominion commenced larger-scale work this year, residents at first were appalled at the destruction of the trees. Dominion insists they were mostly weed trees, like hackberries, threatening the historic buildings from above and below, with limbs touching roofs, and roots undermining foundations. Some long-term residents think the cutting back was mostly necessary if about 10 percent too enthusiastic—one particularly mourns that they stripped the lower limbs of some large magnolia trees. "They just want to make it look all neat and clean," says one neighbor, perhaps disapprovingly.

Rumors of wholesale demolitions are mostly exaggerated. Dominion will demolish one building, a small long-abandoned house on the fringe of what's considered Maplehurst, clinging to the side of the hill on the UT side. Once accessible by a rickety-looking bridge, the house is long-abandoned, now overgrown and fenced off from the rest of the neighborhood. Two other buildings central to Maplehurst proper have been rumored to be slated for demolition. They're condemned for human habitation, says Dominion Vice President for Property Management Will Ferguson, but Dominion says they've stabilized the buildings with roof repair. "If somebody wants to fix them up, we'd be glad to sell them," says Ferguson.

Ferguson and Dominion Chief Executive Officer Steve Hall, along with a changing retinue of others, walk through the noisy site of squealing saws and sanders, pointing out the highlights of a redevelopment that encompasses 95 units, straddling the pre-war buildings on top of the hill and the more prosaic ca. 1960s apartments visible from Neyland Drive. Dominion has impressed preservationists with the company's obvious affection for even minor details of historic buildings.

In the tall brick 32-unit apartment building known most recently as the Kristopher, Ferguson points out that their main improvement will be replacing the heating and air conditioning system. "Boilers are a disaster in an eight-story building," he says. "Every pipe in the building leaks." It will soon have central heat and air, removing the need for the window-unit air conditioners in most of the apartments. "People will have their windows again," he says. It seems to be Dominion's intent to keep as many fixtures as possible. Hall says, "Some of these rooms have a dining table that folds down. Very cool." He even remarks on a long-defunct cluster of telephone bells on a wall. They'll stay.

Preservationists have regarded the project as a godsend. Knox Heritage, which has listed Maplehurst properties on its Fragile 15 list, has rooted for Dominion's vigorous work. "We're lucky that they bought them," says Kim Trent, director of Knox Heritage. "Somebody could have bought the block and demolished it. Nothing could have stopped them. We've been hoping for somebody to save it that has what you're gonna need, that has the resources, and an appreciation for history."

Dominion has resources. Hall says they're sinking $11.5 million into the project, including the purchase price; more than half of that will be spent on rehab. The small local company has a pretty good reputation with other ambitious historic projects, like Cherokee Mills, which is technically bigger than Maplehurst. That office-retail redo on Sutherland Avenue is about 65 percent finished and leased. Dominion boasts projects in several states in the Southeast.

Cynthia Markert, who has lived in Maplehurst for most of the last 30 years and depicted its eccentricities in a series of photographs she called "My Maplehurst," remembers how she found it in 1981, when it was an enclave of sculptors, dancing teachers, and grad students. One of Knoxville's best-known visual artists, Markert—who currently lives in one of the historic buildings not owned by Dominion—has been sharply critical of other development projects in the past, especially Gameday. Though she worries about the new era, she likes much of what she sees.

"It's an amazing change, it's phenomenal to see," she says. "I like seeing Maplehurst get the care and attention it needs. I just hope they don't make it all rich college kids."

***

It's true that rents are going up dramatically in most of Maplehurst, in some cases three times what they were last year. Profit is not Dominion's only motive, and ironically that fact may unsettle observers about the project. Hall and Ferguson talk repeatedly about "community building," and after a while you have to ask what they mean.

"It's kind of a community apartment complex," says Ferguson. "We're trying to build community. As Christians, Steve and I want something different from the typical development." He says they want to make, of their part of Maplehurst, a community specifically friendly to Christians. "That's the environment we're trying to help create." Discriminating against non-Christians would be illegal, he acknowledges, by the Fair Housing Act. "We can't force it. But that's who we want to attract."

He thinks they're legally safe. "You've got to understand," Ferguson says, "this has nothing to do with who we accept as tenants. By the fair-housing laws, we're obligated to accept any and all comers" who pass conventional qualifications, like background checks for criminal history. "Other than that, we accept anybody that comes to the property. But the people who run our properties, and our management company, are all Christians." Hall says they've been advertising heavily in area churches, but also through UT departments, like engineering and architecture.

Ferguson shows one particularly handsome two-story house with riverside porches in the center of the historic part of Maplehurst. It will be home to three or four people who will serve the Dominion project as "community coordinators," students or professionals whose rents are subsidized by Dominion, and who will plan neighborhood activities for the other residents. He's unsure about what that will entail in Maplehurst's case; in their other projects, it tends to focus around sports or swimming-pool parties, but Maplehurst, lacking those amenities, will have different sorts of gatherings.

He expects they'll get others—"Muslims, or non-believers," he suggests—but as far as tenants, Christians are what they're aiming for. He and Hall both talk about the development's Christian emphasis matter-of-factly, as if it's not necessarily an unusual detail, and in fact their other existing apartment complexes—Greenbrier, 414 Forest Park, and Raintree, comprising almost 450 units, all in West Knoxville—operate by the same plan. Hall says they like Christians for practical reasons, because "they're great tenants."

Hall and Ferguson speak about their approach in frank, businesslike tones. "Parents want a safe place for their daughters to live," Hall says.

Would Maplehurst tenants expect to be evangelized? Hall bristles a little at that question, implying the answer is no. "If you call meeting neighbors, having neighbors being near you, getting to know you, if you call that evangelism—"

Others in the downtown community, including those who have praised Dominion's efforts in Maplehurst, as well as some city officials associated with housing, say they weren't aware of the company's religious orientation. Dominion's website offers no mention of faith, though their motto, "Creating healthy, positive communities / Enriching lives," may reach a bit farther than most residential developers' promises.

However, aiming a development toward people of one faith may be unprecedented among housing developers in the downtown area.

Dominion moves quickly, and most of the ambitious project is on track to be ready for occupancy in August. Hall says about 70 percent of their new rental units, available at $600 and up, are already spoken for.

Hall thinks the neighborhood has suffered from too many absentee landlords, "owners who had no passion for the neighborhood as a community," he says. "I've studied what's the best model for how to reset it. The highest and best use of it would be a combination of owners and renters." They're looking at selling some properties in 18-24 months, but with a condo contract in which Dominion would still own the land.

Hall smiles, standing outside Dominion's Maplehurst office. "On one side there's World's Fair Park, on one side there's the university, Neyland Stadium. Look, you can see the Andrew Johnson Building." The tall brick office building on Gay Street looks surprisingly close. "And on the other side, there's the river. It's really an island," he says. "There's nothing like it in Knoxville. There's nothing that even compares to it."


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